The coronavirus pandemic dominated the Year 2020 and still does up to now. Our health-guided response has remained tolerant and resilient for the sake of our own protection and safety.
Our frontline workers have kept us safe these past 10 months and still are.
As a country we are indebted to these men and women who stood guard, whether at the borders, quarantine sites or wherever, to keep a protective watch over us.
The protections they provided are at considerable personal risks to their own safety and of their families.
The National Emergency Operational Centre or NEOC remains at the lead of all the activities for our safeguard and is the identity for our frontline workers.
The Director General of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri and former CEO of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ulu Bismarck Crawley, has continued their exceptional teamwork for NEOC, started with the measles epidemic of 2019.
Ulu stepped down in retirement before the end of the year and CEO Agafili Shem Leo of the Ministry of the Prime Minister took the chair to keep alive the high quality leadership.
The discovery of a health vaccine for the COVID-19 virus has raised our hopes. But before we can truly celebrate in relief we are still not out of the danger zone by a fair margin.
The NECO leadership continues to hold sway on our COVID-19 armour of protection.
Our Newsline Samoa choice of Person of the Year should go to the NEOC leadership and frontline heroes for the safety bubble they have created for everyone in 2020.
Our recognition flows equally with gratitude in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic as they did in leading us safely out of the measles epidemic of 2019.
But another deserving recognition and gratitude should also go to a different set of individuals, burdened with a critical task outside of our good health.
Our tourism industry went on a free fall when the pandemic went global. At risk was our second main foreign main source of foreign earning after remittances collapsing on its face.
Job losses threatened to run into the thousands with immeasurable flow-on after-effects in families and beyond.
The risks of wholesale bankruptcy within the wide reach of the industry, mostly hotels and restaurants, were even worse.
This is the dire economic backdrop that opened up a new risk-front the pandemic brought for Samoa as part of its global reach.
While our NEOC frontline guard kept the COVID-19 virus from penetrating our defences, it left us seriously exposed to an economic pummeling.
The pandemic has indeed extracted a heavy toll on our national economy but we have been spared the worst.
A collapse of our tourism industry would have knocked our economy out for a very serious count. Thankfully it has not.
The Samoa Tourism Authority, STA, deserves full credit for reaching out a helping hand. The Samoa Hotel Association, SHA, and its determined fight for survival deserve the same acknowledgement.
STA represented the public sector as the tourism arm of Government whereas SHA fronted up for the private sector in the industry.
When the lockdown of frontline borders to international travel was decided as early as last March, the negative impact on tourism was glaring.
STA and SHA saw what was coming and went into a mad scramble for revenue options to fill the enormous income void from the border lockdown.
Leading the urgent charge fell on the shoulders of CEO Suifua Fa’amatuainu of the STA and to Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaai as the President of SHA.
Tourism was riding high with heavy travel and hotel bookings in the follow up to the Pacific Games in 2019 hosted by Samoa.
By Nov-Dec of the same year the measles epidemic came along and the promising growth recorded earlier for tourism dropped.
Still there was a quiet confidence it will bounced back in 2020 when the measles vaccination campaign kicked in and the risks are brought down to normal levels again.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“ The fear when CVOID-19 came around was the loss of thousands of tourism related jobs,” CEO Fa’amatuainu reflected at how it was at the start of the pandemic lockdown.
“The emphasis at the time was always on the international market with only token attention to the local domestic market.
“Attention by the Samoa Tourism Board and STA went straight into looking for an urgent remedial response.”
Government responded with several stimulus package support in the early stages but it soon became clear that more will be needed to keep the industry alive.
Attention then turned into the promotion of the domestic market. The STA promotional budget for the international market was re-directed internally to fire up the domestic market interest.
A series of sustained promotional events followed. The objective was to offer locals the same opportunities overseas visitors enjoyed with the hotels, restaurants and all the other activities available to them.
“STA also went all out to encourage Government ministries and corporations to make use of the facilities like hotels and restaurants to hold meetings or other official gatherings.
“Locals were encouraged to hold family celebrations like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and more in hotels and restaurants within affordable rates.”
The series of promotional events to keep the domestic market turning is still on going.
Public response has reached the point already where CEO Fa’amatuainu is humbled by the overwhelming support shown.
Locals are seen flocking to spend their free times in hotels, tourist attractions and more tourism related activities.
Ironically, the pandemic influence also lent a helping hand as well.
“The use of hotels as quarantine sites for returning citizens has benefitted both ways for Government and the private sector.
“NEOC has already sunk $4 million tala into the arrangements for quarantine stay at the selected hotels.
“Government has also reached out to the commercial banks for some financial relief for the industry and they have responded as well.”
SHA President, Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaai, agreed with a lot of effort gone into putting back some hope into the tourism business community to keep going.
He also accepted that having a cure for the pandemic is a light of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel for the industry, in a very challenging year.
Still he has reservations about any full early recovery.
“Yes there is light at the end of the tunnel but still nothing is certain especially with this new virus variant starting to tighten up travel again,” Tupa’i worried.
The SHA President who is also a member of the Tourism Board acted as the main bridge with the Government.
As a hotel and restaurant owner himself his role was to work with the members of the industry to spark the interest in the domestic market.
To make that a reality the challenge was to bring the industry price range down to a rate level domestic market can afford.
“The industry undertaking was a huge one with high operational costs but it was also realised there was a need to make sacrifices.
“At first everyone started to look at Government with the global trend for stimulus support but we knew well enough at the same time our limited resources.
“Government priority was also for the safety of the country.”
Tupa’i needed no convincing that the domestic market was their best option and the challenge was to drum up local interest.
What came next with the tourism business community struggles to diversify and to adapt to the economic setbacks touched the SHA president deeply.
“It is not very easy to adapt, the struggles to survive remains and many are at the end of their ropes….standing on one leg.
“We never anticipated the pandemic to continue for 9 straight months. We were able to tolerate the first 3 months and managed to hang on up to 6 months and we still are 9 months later.”
Tupa’i also credited the support of the financing community that has kept many in the tourism business going.
He did accept that at the same time too the financing community can only support them to a point.
What Tupa’i was able to note as the year continues, was not just the resilience by members of the industry but also the surging response by the domestic market.
“Prior to the measles and the coronavirus, we could see a trend of locals opting to holiday in Fiji.
“The attractions and more importantly the affordable holiday rates were drawing them out.”
Tupa’i felt rewarded by the huge eye opening experience of seeing the local domestic market take off in a way never before anticipated.
All the hard work that went into promotional activities looked to be paying off.
“We could see people feeling locked down at home so we planned our promotional events to offer them an escape from the restrictions at home.
“We’ve made it this far but there is still see more to be done for the industry, we can see.”
The most satisfaction for Tupa’i with the fruits of their combined labour with the STA, is the inspiration of seeing the resilience the tourism industry has shown.
He admired how they have been able to survive after the long struggle that is still ongoing even with the light of hope flickering at the end of the tunnel.
“We have tried our best and a lot still remains to be done. Any loss of hope is not an option we must not lose hope.”
STA boss Suifua Fa’amatuainu has a more practical approach to take from the lessons of the pandemic.
After going on the hunt for financial support to keep the tourism industry afloat, his resolve is for an emergency funding to be set up for the industry to fall back on in bad times like this.
He would prefer an emergency funding set aside not just for the tourism industry but also for all other key sectors that contribute to the national economy.
The local tourism industry may still have more surviving to do but to be able to fend for itself this long deserves loud applause.
STA Chief Executive Officer Suifua Fa’amatuainu and SHA President Tupa’i Saleimoa Vaai have led from the front and are the face of a brave struggle for our tourism industry to keep going.
Seeing the light of hope at the end of the tunnel and finally reaching it is still a work in progress for them.
But after coming this far for an industry that has teetered at the end of their ropes and on one leg for so long, credit is due to the leadership and guidance shown by these two special individuals.
The Newsline Samoa’s choice of Person Of the Year recognises their exceptional, on-going contribution, to keep the second highest income earner for Samoa alive.
Newsline Samoa also wish to give special acknowledgement to the NEOC leadership on behalf of the frontline workers, to the Director General of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, former NEOC Chairman Ulu Bismarck Crawley and his successor CEO Agafili Shem Leo.
(Source; Newsline Samoa 02 January 2021)